SWIMNEWS ONLINE: July 1996 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

A week before the Australian Olympic Trials in Sydney, I returned to Melbourne where I coached in the early 1970s. On Batman Avenue, the traditional centre of swimming in Melbourne, I came to the Olympic Pool, where, in 1956, Australian swimmers had re-established world supremacy in their first at-home Olympics. There, for one exciting and dramatic week, bronzed young athletes such as Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, and Jon Henricks, fresh from their training camp in Townsville, Northern Queensland, brought the crowds to their feet with cheers that raised the rafters.

Alas, what was once a shrine to true Olympic endeavour has been vandalised over the years, and is now converted to an exhibition hall. The giant stadium, where thousands lined up daily to see the training sessions of Australia's greatest team ever, is now a sad, gaunt sight.

Across the road from the old Olympic Stadium is the Vic Centre, formerly the open air Beaurepaire Pool, named after Sir Frank Beaurepaire, the man mainly responsible for bringing the 1956 Olympics to Melbourne, and whose outstanding swimming career lasted a quarter century (1906 to 1930).

Because Melbourne's climate is notorious for having "four seasons in a day", most of Melbourne's swimming pools are built indoors, and so before leaving for the national championships, we coaches would bring our swimmers to "Beaurepaire" for a few outdoor sessions to sample the fresh air.

The old pool is now housed indoors, and it still wouldn't win architectural awards. Not by chance is the Vic Centre known as "The Swimming Factory"-it is strictly utilitarian, a place plainly planned for "making" swimmers through industrious effort.

The kindest thing one can say about the Beaurepaire Pool, in its new guise as the Vic Centre, is that it serves its purpose, and is a tribute to the Australian gift for ingenuity. Along the walls and ceilings of the pool, fat brightly-coloured ventilation tubes lend a surrealistic effect.

"Where do I find Bill Nelson?" I asked. "Up those steps on the other side of the pool," said my guide. High in the air, I saw the coach's office, a large box attached to the far-side wall, looking for all the world like an oversized dovecot.

Access to the office is by climbing three flights of steep iron steps. Carrying a heavy bag, and rapidly approaching anaerobic threshold, I finally made it to the coach's roof-top eyrie. Seated in a neat office, complete with computers and training records, sat Coach Bill Nelson and his young assistant, Robert Iannazzo.


Nelson told me that he had coached Daniel Kowalski since November 1994, but had first met him at the Australian Institute of Sport in 1990, when Nelson and David Pyne, the Institute's head physiologist, had conducted a national talent identification program.

"At that stage, Daniel was a fairly good freestyler, and also a good backstroker, and 200 fly swimmer with good technique. He already had an excellent physique and a fine mental attitude. He was all set for a great career."

"Because it was only a seven-day camp and Daniel was one of a group of about 23 swimmers, there wasn't time to form in-depth opinions. We had a brief opportunity to talk about different things, but we never had the chance to really get to know the swimmers as well as we needed to. But we kept in touch with Daniel, as we did with all the kids who came to the camp."

At the 1994 World Championships in Rome, Don Talbot told Nelson that Daniel Kowalski wanted to move to Melbourne to train with him.

Nelson said that on moving to Melbourne, he had resigned himself to the fact that it was going to take a while for him to put swimmers on the national team.

"So I was delighted by the fact that Daniel wanted to come to Melbourne. But, it was a sensitive situation because, when you are on a national team, you have the responsibility to do the right thing by the coach who is not there, and to look after the swimmers to the best of your ability."

"When Don asked me to meet Daniel, I did so, and briefly said to him: 'I am here to do a job, and you are here to do a job. When you get home, you think about it. Then, if you still want to go ahead, give me a call.' And I left it at that."

"When I returned home, Daniel rang up and said that it was something he wanted to do. I suppose the hardest thing for someone in that situation was to decide what he was going to do, and where he was going to live. So I spoke to my wife, and she said that Daniel was welcome to stay with us until he was ready to move on.

"Kowalski has now stayed with the Nelson family for 18 months. He gets on very well with my three children, Jae, Ele, and Kye. He gets on well with my wife, Joanne. We really don't have too many problems mixing the swimming side of it with the family life at home. I try to give him his space, and he knows to give me mine. And it works out well. He likes to be in a family setting. I know his parents.They are a tight family; for him to be happy he really had to be in a family environment."


Daniel Kowalski is a polished stroke technician. He makes top swimming look easy. There is no visible effort in his stroke. Visible effort is unproductive effort; it's effort the swimmer uses against oneself.

With typical understatement, Nelson says, "Daniel's got a good technique. Like everyone else, sometimes he'll get a little bit lazy on a few things, but he's one of those people who wants to be a student of the sport. There's nothing that he wants to leave to chance. He leaves no stone unturned. So if I say something to him, I know it won't go in one ear and out the other. He'll take it in, and do his best to do it."

Daniel Kowalski is an intelligent young man, mature for his age. I heard that Daniel had won additional fame as a TV quiz-kid, and I asked Nelson to comment on this.

"Daniel went on this nationally televised quiz show, and ended up winning it. He was pretty happy because he beat some politicians and media personalities. This was a different sort of pressure; it also gave him the opportunity to feel good about himself. If swimmers feel good about themselves, then they'll swim fast."

"You're not just trying to mature them as swimmers, but you're also trying to mature them as people. The thing about international sport is that it is all about pressure; being able to withstand it, being able to apply it."


Nelson said that the type of training, the stroke mechanics, and the emphasis placed on his swimmers are probably not much different from anyone else's. "We try to cover the full spectrum of the heart rate range, and the lactate range, and our program is carefully planned and methodical. But, at the same time, if I think something needs to be changed, then I'll change it on the day. " "Obviously, the key sets for Daniel are similar to those for any other distance swimmers; his over-distance work, and certainly his MVO2 and threshold work are the key themes. Kowalski is fortunate in that he has natural speed, and can handle a variety of training without losing his speed. About two or three times a week, he tries to do a certain amount of work, about 3000 metres, as close to race pace as possible."

Nelson divides the program into four week periods. "Basically, I have an endurance week, a quality week, a sprint week, and an adaptation week. These four weeks are cycled into a format depending on the individual group, and their responses. I usually work three weeks on and one week off, every fourth week being an adaptation week. " "The off-week is an adaptation week devoted to recovery. What I usually do is keep the main sets at the same intensity, but half the usual distance. So, if we're going 3000 metres of MVO2 work, we'll come back to 1600 or 2000 metres during that week. I allow the body to just catch up after what it has been through, but, at the same time, not allow it to go into a full rest state. Our MAX VO2 work varies between each of the individual groups, and it also depends on each individual swimmer."

Nelson said that Daniel Kowalski would do something like thirty 100s on 1:30, and he would hold anywhere from high 57s to low 58s. His heart would reach about twenty below his maximum, which is in the 172 to 176 range.

"Especially at Kowalski's level of achievement, every workout is highly individualized," says Nelson. "The whole thing with coaching is that it is highly individual. I hand out my training plan to anyone who wants a copy of it, because I don't think that drawing up a schedule represents the art of coaching. It's the interpretation of that plan that counts, and how you convince the swimmers of what you want to do."

Nelson believes that the coach has to build the training program around each individual swimmer. "Don't try to put a swimmer into the training program. Plan the program around the swimmer. That becomes a difficult thing to do in any program when you have a big team. But that's the art of coaching. It is this that distinguishes people who really want to coach from those who only do it half-heartedly, with insufficient regard for each individual swimmer."

In Nelson's experience each swimmer has favourite workout sets, which may vary with time. They find the type of workout that really works for them. This provides a yardstick to measure progress by repeating the same type of set on another occasion.

For example, at the end of a training session, after seven kilometres of freestyle and separate kicking, Kowalski may do three 200 metre swims in a descending set of 1:56.2, 1:55.2 and 1:53.5.

"The key is to do the work that you know is going to stimulate the response you want, but, at the same time, the workout must be put across in a way that will challenge each swimmer. It's got to be enjoyable for them to meet those challenges, and the stimulus you're trying to give to the swimmer comes in a variety of ways. It's a matter of finding those different ways."

I commented on the rivalry between Daniel Kowalski and Kieren Perkins. Nelson said: "They respect each other, and, in fact, Daniels said, after Perkins had swum his way into the Australian team, that Perkins had shown a lot of character."

Nelson says that there's an interesting relationship between Kieren Perkins and Daniel Kowalski, and even Glen Housman. "I think it has been built up over a period of time, and it carries over into Daniels' swimming; how he handles himself leading up to the meet, during the meet, and after the meet. It says a lot about Daniel's character." "This probably sounds strange, but going into the 1500 at the Olympic Trials, Daniel was wishing that Kieren would also be on the team. He knows that, for Australia to be successful at the Olympics, Kieren has got to be a vital part of that team, and Kieren has got to be swimming well." "But, at the same time, Daniel knew that he had to go out and do the things I set him to do. Although the time wasn't what I wanted, and what Kieren and Daniel, or John Carew wanted, as I've said before, it provided a great race. I don't think anyone in the world would have had a better 1500 race than what those three guys did on Saturday night. That calibre of tough, hard racing has got to help us as we go into the Olympics."


"It's OK to have a closely contested race over a 100, a 200, or even a 400, but over 1500 it is a test of the whole person. And it shows a great insight into what those two guys are about. So there were some very positive things that came out of that race. It stood both of them in good stead, leading up to Atlanta in twelve weeks time."

Nelson said that many people look upon swimming as an individual sport, but it's only individual when they stand on the blocks. "You must create a team environment, and it must be conducive to excellence. This is important to me as a coach because it helps everyone to swim to the best of their ability."

Asked if Daniel would stay with the 1500, or move down to the 400, Nelson said that Kowalski would stay with the 1500. "He loves the 1500. When you look at the times on the board, there are certainly people who are closing the gap, but by the same token, Daniel hasn't reached the level that he wants to achieve. And he certainly hasn't reached what I think him capable of doing."

Nelson said that Kurt Eldridge looks a good prospect. "Kurt has been around for quite a while. He spent time at Cal Berkeley with Nort Thornton, and then came back to Australia. He is a very, very tough competitor. There are kids such as Graham Hackett, the 15-year-old, who went a 15:30.63. There are a few kids like them knocking on the door, and that's good for our sport."

Nelson continued: "After Atlanta, Kowalski, who has only just turned 20, is keen to go to the world short course championships, and from there, he is at an age when Sydney 2000 certainly is not out of the question."

"Daniel is very keen to keep going, and for him, his swimming has entered a new era. He is enjoying his swimming more. He accepts the challenges. He has always accepted challenges, but I think he is more interested in the challenges. It's not a case of 'I've got to do this because it's being thrown at me'. He tries to really be part of what is happening, and if you've got someone like that, who is open-minded, then the future looks good. Daniel has put in the hard work, and he is about to reap his rewards."

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